College admission is on trial

Dozens of parents recently were indicted for bribing 14 people, mostly college athletic coaches, to fraudulently secure places for their children at elite colleges. When the news broke, my mother called me to express her outrage. I am a lawyer and vice president of enrollment at St. John's College, a private liberal arts college with campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M., that fortunately is not involved in this scandal. 

“These parents rigged the system for their privileged children,” she said. “They took spots away from students who really deserve them.”

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There is a public perception that certain factors mean students deserve admission to college. Grades and test scores are the commonly accepted factors. But this perception is an incorrect understanding of how college admission works. 

In our system, no one deserves admission to college. At private colleges, the college determines factors for admission. Most top private colleges employ a holistic admission process that may include grades and test scores along with other less tangible factors. At St. John’s, for example, we have a unique Great Books curriculum, and I admit students based on their fit for the curriculum, which I uncover through application essays.

Every private college is a private business seeking students that meet its institutional needs. One college may seek students with intellectual essays. Another college may seek students with great athletic talent. Still another, trying to stay in business, may seek students with great wealth.

Fraudulently bribing your way into college is wrong (and illegal). But what if these wealthy parents had made donations to the college instead? What if they hired college counselors to assist with essays and test preparation? Called a friend on the board of trustees?

There are now three major college admissions legal actions in the courts: the Harvard affirmative action case, the Department of Justice investigation into binding early admission, and the indictment of 50 people for bribing their way into elite colleges. These three cases are closely related because they reveal the same problem: the American people do not trust how we are using holistic factors to admit students to the nation’s colleges.  

According to a 2016 Gallup poll, 7 out of 10 people thought admission to college should be based solely on “merit.” In a 2018 Gallup poll, 48 percent said that they have confidence in higher education, which was down from 57 percent in 2015. That represents the largest drop of any industry polled.

College admission is on trial — in the courts and by the American public.

I can, and will, defend our system of holistic admissions, which I believe is responsible for making American higher education the best in the world. At St. John’s, I am confident that selecting students on the basis of their intellectual excitement for our curriculum is the right thing to do. But not every factor that colleges use is right, and there is something seriously wrong with our system if the public rejects it.

Private colleges are not just another private business. People are willing to bribe their way into top colleges because such institutions confer something greater than any private business: the prestige, identity, and social networks that seemingly guarantee entry into the nation’s elite. While one study recently revealed that nearly 50 percent of students at highly selective colleges come from the top 1 percent, another showed that 89 percent of students at private colleges are receiving financial aid. Nearly all students who can afford to pay full tuition are concentrated at a small group of colleges. Coincidence? I think not.  

It is time for college leaders to publicly reexamine the factors we consider in this holistic admission process. What students deserve admission? What is “merit” when some of the most commonly accepted forms of merit, such as test scores, are weighted toward families with money? How is it feasible for private colleges to reject donations from alumni parents they need to stay in business? If “merit” excludes consideration of race and class, how do we admit gifted students who do not have the same opportunities to show those gifts as their privileged counterparts? Should extracurricular “merit” be weighed as heavily as academic?

Whatever factors colleges weigh, we need to honestly explain how our choices represent the best way to enroll students who deserve to attend our colleges. The public needs to believe our explanation, too. 

Yes, it is risky to reexamine the system. It may be even riskier to be transparent. Billions of dollars are at stake. But if we fail, then we risk something greater: the collapse of public support for higher education. At any moment the courts or a politician could make these decisions for us.

Benjamin S. Baum is vice president of enrollment for St. John’s College, which has campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M. Follow on Twitter @stjohnscollege.